The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and The Sandman: Bent Reality & Crooked Truths in Modern Filmmaking
The walls are slanted. Shadows crookedly reach around corners: the angles too severe, the colors distorted. This may sound like a painter’s depiction of madness. Instead, it’s the 1920s German Expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, directed by Robert Wiene—the story of a hypnotist who uses a sleepwalker to commit violent acts of murder. At the end, there is a chilling twist that is shocking even by today’s standards. The same description can be used for the 1992 film The Sandman, directed by Paul Berry. Animated with beautiful fluidity, it shows a creature called the Sandman sneaking into a young child’s home and, instead of giving sweet dreams, snatches the boy’s eyes. It’s a chilling twist on an old folktale that wonderfully subverts the audience’s expectations. These films were made decades apart, in very different political and economic climates, but both stories stem from the same place: the fascination with and twisting of societal norms and customs, and are both commentaries on human nature and what we do to cope with reality.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was a groundbreaking film and incredibly ahead of its time. It was released at a time when Germany was very unstable and its citizens were still recovering from a horrific world war, and Robert Wiene clearly drew inspiration from the exhausted and hurting German citizens to create a film that is arguably one of the earliest horror flicks ever created. The production designers took great care to make sure that Dr. Caligari was easily distinguishable from other films of its time. Every set seemed to have been built for the sole purpose of weirding the viewers out and gives the sense that everything could come tumbling down at the blink of an eye. One of the coolest aspects of the sets was how beams of light were directly painted onto the ground and walls. This was practical as the entire film is in black and white and some of the detailed lighting may be lost on the aged film. But there’s another reason as well: to definitively prove that the world the characters inhabit has not only weird proportions and uncertain spaces, but that the laws of physics don’t have any place here. Anytime someone walked through a shaft of light, only their shadow would dance across the floor, leaving the light unblemished. It’s details like these that make the movie all the more eerie.
Stop-motion and live-action films could not be more different in terms of how they’re made, like the time involvement and design process, but The Sandman shares a beautiful familiarity with Dr. Caligari. The claymation movie seems directly influenced by the German Expressionist film, especially when looking at the way the sets were constructed. Again, everything in the world that the little boy and his mother live in feels incredibly off, even if the audience can’t articulate why. The walls bend inwards, trapping the characters in their own little bubble of madness. Even the bed that the boy tucks himself into is crooked and doesn’t look the least bit inviting. This is particularly twisted, as The Sandman is a modern take on an old folklore about a creature that delivers sweet dreams to sleeping souls. And of course, since the film is made by animating clay, nothing on the sets can actually be moving in real time. Just like in Dr. Caligari, the painting of both shadows and light beams serve a practical purpose while maintaining an off-putting atmosphere. When push comes to shove in the narrative, we see the angles shift: the little boy climbs out of bed to investigate the mysterious sound, and the floorboards tilt dangerously, almost foreshadowing how terrible his fate will be. Just as when Cesare murders citizens and sulks around town, the camera angles are wonky and angled, as if showing the deteriorating mental state of the characters.
While both films are distinctly disturbing in their own right with their personal artistic touches that are indicative of their eras, there is a distinct and important difference. The ending of The Sandman, where the titular monster takes the boy’s eyes and delivers them to its young, the world we see them in makes sense. Finally, the sharp angles and odd proportions fit because the creatures themselves are just as messed up as the surroundings. But in Dr. Caligari, at no point does the audience get an “ah-ha!” moment where everything fits into place and makes sense. The twist happens, the secret of the madman revealed, and yet, the town is as wonky as ever. There is no reprieve, no break from the onslaught of wild imagery. It takes its viewers on a wild ride from start to finish and leaves them breathless when the credits roll. This could be because of the time periods the films were made in. The Sandman was made in 1992, decades after the horrific time of world wars and complete financial and emotional ruin. It’s like the audiences wanted a complete ending, and, even if the ending isn’t “happy,” it’s sensical. Dr. Caligari leaves the viewer as uncertain and curious as they had been when they walked in the theatre. Yes, some questions were answered. We know that the story was told by an unreliable narrator who in fact was a madman after all. Yes, Cesare is frightful, but for all intents and purposes, he’s a gentle man who doesn’t have a predilection for murder. And yes, almost all the main characters are in fact merely patients at an insane asylum. But that doesn’t answer if that’s the real truth, or what Jane’s full story is, or why Francis had a break from reality. In the end, what is the truth? Does it matter? Meanwhile, The Sandman doesn’t go into nearly the same depth, but that isn’t bad. It’s just a fairytale gone terribly wrong, and sometimes that’s all that needs to be told. A story can just be creepy and beautiful without needing to be “deep.”
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and The Sandman are incredible examples of films bending reality through unsettling imagery. Despite the decades between the two, it’s easy to see how similar they are. They are both underrated pieces of art that greatly influenced films that came after them. Both Robert Wiene and Paul Berry had clear visions when they directed their work, and they both achieved their goals. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari still holds up in the 21st century as one of the first modern horror films and is an amazing example of German Expressionism at its finest. The Sandman is one of the eeriest stop-motion films made in recent memory and is the blueprint for many claymation films, particularly films like Coraline, Wallace and Gromit, and Mary and Max. Without the filmmakers’ groundbreaking work, the film world would be lacking in some beautiful pieces of cinema that beg the question: what is our reality, and how do we tell stories within its confines?